Expectations on digital experience
It is not enough to simply have a website anymore. Brands have to consider their online experiences to best communicate with their audiences and to create a consistent brand across physical, digital and other touchpoints. Emily Andrews examines the changing value of the digital brand experience
Companies have long been aware of the importance of creating immersive brand experiences in the physical space, either in-store, in the workplace or at other points of contact. But now, for many businesses, the primary touchpoint between the consumer and the brand is online. A company website used to be an afterthought, an extra avenue for conveying information to relevant stakeholders, but is now a primary means for communicating an organisation’s brand proposition, for building its reputation and for creating and building engagement. A company’s online presence can be a brand experience in and of itself.
When a brand tries to create a physical experience, it considers the audience’s participation, or the experience of the user. This is the same online and, in fact, the user experience can be far more valuable because it is personalised to the particular journey of that one individual; their preferences, their choices and their journey. This kind of personalised, online experience – made possible by the huge amount of data that is generated online – is likely to grow exponentially in the coming years as businesses improve their understanding of how to harvest and utilise this glut of information.
Nick Bennett, strategic planning director at London and New York-based digital agency Rawnet says, “As you move through that customer journey on a particular website, based on what you’re doing with your mouse and your mobile phone, the analysis is constantly churning away. We’re probably two or three years away from the website responding in real time to your behaviour, and so effectively your web experience is unique to you.”
This is significant because, in a physical space, even with the help of new technology – such as beacons, and even eye-tracking technology – there is a limit to the amount of personalisation that businesses can achieve. In terms of brand, the personalised online journey will provide organisations with an even better understanding of who their audiences are, which will enable them to tailor their brand proposition so that it resonates with their stakeholders in the best possible way.
Currently, personalised user journeys are largely associated with retailers and B2C brands, but there is perhaps even more opportunity for B2B organisations looking to improve their online brand experience. Whereas B2C brands usually have a physical space, such as a shopfront, B2B businesses may not, which makes the online experience even more valuable. In addition, the distinction between B2C and B2B brands, and thus the way that they communicate with their stakeholders, is becoming less pronounced. A people-first approach has become popular since employees, investors and other stakeholder groups are now understood to be customers as well.
Historically, B2B brands have perhaps invested less into their digital façade, but as more and more brands realise the potential of physical brand experiences when dealing with their B2B audiences, they should also come to realise the importance of creating an authentic brand experience online. This is usually achieved by the implementation of a digital-first, mobile-ready platform that is informed by the brand’s key values and principles, and, for some businesses, may involve an entirely new approach to digital.
Typically, when it comes to the creation of a brand experience online, new tech companies and start-ups – such as the oft-referenced Airbnb – perform best. This is generally because they launched at a time when digital- first thinking was the norm. Other, more traditional, brands have to entirely reimagine their approach, which can pose a significant challenge.
Ahmad Badr, strategy director at global brand consultancy Siegel+Gale says, “Businesses that have achieved success by establishing a strong connection to consumers through their physical presence first, are often playing catch-up in the digital world. Their business models hold them back from being truly innovative in the digital realm.”
That rich history and brand heritage can offer as much of an advantage online as it does offline, but major corporations should think about taking some of the risks that they take in the physical space with their digital offering. It is a waste to have a fully-developed, strong brand identity and to fail to communicate that properly online, where the majority of stakeholders are. Bennett says, “Use what you’ve got offline, and merge it into what you’re doing digitally. Don’t try and create separate pathways.”
An organisation should embrace innovation and new technology in order to better communicate the positive aspects of its brand identity.
Andy Budd, CEO at British digital and user experience agency Clearleft says, “If I go online and I start using a product or service, and that service is slow, old-fashioned and difficult to use, then I will perceive your brand as slow, old-fashioned and difficult to use. If I go online and it’s super-efficient, super-quick, really well-considered and the people behind it have obviously put a huge amount of effort, care and consideration into the delivery of that experience, then I’m going to assume that you’re the kind of company and brand that values quality.”
“Businesses that have achieved success by establishing a strong connection to consumers through their physical presence first, are often playing catch-up in the digital world. Their business models hold them back from being truly innovative in the digital realm”
The creative process can be quite different when employing a digital-first mentality. Budd says, “The subtlety is that designing in digital has different constraints.” Unlike with traditional design, you don’t know how the site will be interacted with (or what device it will be accessed from). However, ease of use is an utmost priority.
There are several techniques which organisations can employ to create a better brand experience online. A content-led approach is a popular way to create an online destination that places the brand at the centre of a wider conversation. ASOS employs this technique very successfully by incorporating both image and copy-led blog-style posts around fashion and lifestyle. ASOS has expanded its remit beyond being, simply, a clothing retailer – through both its social media presence and its website – it is an authority on all that is fashionable and current among its target audience. Storytelling can be achieved through use of video, imagery and copy, and ASOS has even announced its intention to use virtual reality headset, Trillenium, to enhance its online experience.
As well as being simple, enjoyable and easy to use, an immersive online experience can also be great for driving brand engagement. With its website, Pernod Ricard-owned Absolut Vodka transcends its product offering to associate itself with a certain lifestyle that is nocturnal, exciting and glamorous. Fredrik Thorsén, global head of digital marketing at Absolut says, “What makes our digital eco-system of Absolut.com, our social channels, and our Drinkspiration app so valuable for the brand are that they allow us to present content across all our key touch-points: nightlife through our experiences, our One Source production story, and, of course, how to use our product in drinks. By concentrating our content only on what we are truly experts in, we are not only strengthening our brand persona, but we’re also ensuring that we provide value for our visitors by giving them the type of content they would expect from Absolut.”
The website also incorporates hashtags to create a seamless experience with Absolut’s social channels. While this approach is not suited to every brand, it is a good idea for Absolut and its target demographic, which is likely to post to Instagram and other apps. An interactive and immersive online experience will cut through the noise and stick in the user’s mind. Other retail brands, such as Ray-Ban and Burberry, have also created immersive and interactive websites that strengthen and compliment their physical offerings.
Badr says, “Online experiences that captivate audiences usually invite users to become participants in creating the experience. Whether that means playing a game, answering a question, giving an opinion, or conversing with other customers, the ability to place the user in partial control influences levels of satisfaction.”
Badr argues that the online experience need not replicate physical destinations, since specific objectives may differ. He says, “Some websites are intended to inform, while some others are meant to entertain.” However, it is important that brand messaging remain constant and consistent throughout, whoever the audience and whatever their intentions upon arriving at the site.
Ultimately, brand assets should be applied consistently across both online and offline platforms, and in order for this to be possible, a brand’s purpose needs to be clearly defined from the outset. Badr says, “To start with, the brand itself must have clarity on its identity: purpose, promise, and voice. This identity is developed in alignment with the business objectives and must be applied consistently across platforms.” Online, both visuals – images, patterns, symbols, colours and messaging articulated and narrated through the brand’s tone of voice – contribute to consistency, and immersive techniques, achieved through innovation and technology, deepen engagement with that brand message.
Brands are becoming more and more aware of the importance of thinking in a digital-first manner, and of ensuring that their online experience is entirely representative of their wider brand identity. In the same way that physical brand experiences create engagement with a brand and its message by delivering an exciting and immersive experience, online destinations can also employ a range of tools and techniques to create a brand experience that is innovative, informative and engaging.